Last weekend he idly walked about downtown Kennebunkport, Maine. On Monday he and his wife popped out of the White House for dinner at a new Italian restaurant. A few hours earlier his wife had led reporters on an unexpected tour of the White House's family quarters, warning that she intended to tire them out with public appearances.

There have been jogging sessions at nearby Fort McNair, motorcade trips for Peking duck and unexpected ventures to catch a new movie.John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, said he has told his deputies to be flexible because the president's schedule may be fluid, and he has warned reporters that the president "is willing to go places spontaneously, whether it's for an ice cream cone or a meeting with a foreign leader or a visit to a school halfway across the country to make a point."

What's happening is that George Bush is trying to remake the nation's image of the presidency.

Bush and his wife, Barbara, have made it clear that they do not want to be prisoners of the White House, trapped in its security cocoon, with their every public movement filmed and replayed.

Rather, Bush seems eager to scale back some of that isolation, to quiet the trumpeted entries of the imperial presidency that his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, so relished.

In his month-old presidency, Bush's sudden enthusiasms for a walk or a meal have created questions for others, too, especially those in the press. He wants to enjoy a private life away from the camera's unblinking eye, but at the same time he is willing to grant more access to his thinking and motivation.

Indeed, not long after his inauguration, Bush posed what many found to be a reasonable question. "Why, if I want to go to the ice cream store," he asked press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, "should I have to wait an hour for the press?"

He was referring to the practice of gathering a pool of photographers, reporters and a TV camera crew to accompany a president and his entourage of Secret Service agents and staff whenever they leave the White House.

Although Bush's declaration of independence drew howls from the TV networks, he has said flat-out that sometimes he will just get up and go with only his security detail.

The point Bush and Sununu were making was not really about the president's spontaneity or even about the media; it was about the presidency itself, about how restrictive and isolated it can become.

"There is the big white jail," Harry Truman once said during a morning walk near the White House.

Ever since the attempt to assassinate Truman at Blair House in 1950, the physical side of presidential security has given leaders the option - or the excuse - to withdraw from public scrutiny. The assassination of John F. Kennedy and attempts on Gerald Ford and Reagan have kept the fear alive.

But Bush, who has emulated Teddy Roosevelt in sports and bravado, insists on the right to go out to dinner. And last weekend, during a brief New England visit, he took a two-mile walk into the center of Kennebunkport to show, somewhat unsuccessfully, that it could be done.

"That's just his style," said Sheila Tate, his campaign press secretary. "He likes to get up and go."

Reagan liked the trappings of the presidency, when every appearance was an event, but he didn't allow many glimpses into the core of decision-making. Such limited access to Reagan created a hunger for insight and prompted shouted questions in the wash of helicopter blades.

Bush appears willing to give up much of the spectacle and pomp - and along with it some of the crisis-driven imagery of the presidency.

Reagan was comfortable enough with having all his public movements choreographed. After Bush's first meeting with congressional leaders in the White House, several seemed amazed that a president could speak to the issue without consulting a 3-by-5-inch notecard.

The contrasts to Reagan - 14 years Bush's senior - are inevitable and usually favor Bush, who actually goes to church instead of just promoting the idea.

"There are only two occasions when Americans respect privacy, especially in presidents," Herbert Hoover reminisced. "Those are prayer and fishing." Bush does both regularly.

Presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Richard Nixon have complained about the isolation of the presidency. Nixon, in his memoirs, called it "a magnifying glass" of the president's abilities and his faults.

For the moment, it has magnified Bush's relaxed style, his down-home familiarity, his ability to entertain in the White House without what George Will described as "the English muffin phase." That refers to a widely distributed picture of Ford standing in the kitchen, preparing his own English muffin shortly after he became president.

Whether Bush's nonchalance will withstand his first crisis is anybody's guess. For the moment, there is no hostage crisis (though American hostages remain in Lebanon), no festering internal scandal (though the drinking and womanizing tags still are hung around John Tower, who is awaiting confirmation as secretary of defense) and no personal embarrassment (though the ethics entanglements of his senior appointees could amount to one).